Manchester United on tour: Ten Hag discipline, a settled team and strict curfews

Erik ten Hag finished his first tour as Manchester United manager reflecting on “unacceptable” lapses against Aston Villa that cost his team a perfect record in Thailand and Australia, and The Athletic can reveal the extent to which he meant it.

Part of Ten Hag’s strategy to management is strict discipline and when players err, the consequences are significant. During the 18-day trip, one player was twice late for team meetings. Ten Hag had been planning to use him in a game but dropped him by way of punishment, a reminder to everyone in the squad that punctuality is important.

Ten Hag sees tardiness as a symptom of slipping standards which if unchecked can bleed into other aspects of a footballer’s job on the pitch. He is very clear on what he will and will not accept.

It was noticeable that Bruno Fernandes and David de Gea both strongly backed reprimands for lateness. The player in question here certainly got the message.

Louis van Gaal irritated his squad by taking action over arrivals that were seconds past deadline. Ten Hag is not as pernickety as his compatriot, although he places a high value on schedules and while on tour that extended to player media duties.

Much more than his predecessors, Ten Hag demanded to know when and why players were being asked to speak. In his mind, free time was not to be filled with commitments. “Rest is training,” he said to colleagues. He wanted to know the reasons for interrupting that.

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Ten Hag scrutinises United’s play against Liverpool in Bangkok (Photo: Supakit Wisetanuphong/MB Media/Getty Images)

In general United staff are trying to grant greater access, feeling there is a benefit to supporters hearing more from players. A widespread perception among the fanbase after last season’s disaster is that the players do not care. By communicating directly, rather than only on social media, they can try to correct that view and create a better mood, which in turn may aid performances. Ten Hag has grown open to that theory.

Fred and Victor Lindelof sat down with journalists at The Athenee Hotel in Bangkok and De Gea gave an interview at the Ritz Carlton in Perth, which is where broadcasters also spoke to Raphael Varane and Bruno Fernandes.

Ten Hag has a similar outlook on his own media engagements. He declined to do post-match press conferences on tour, rather wishing to switch his attention immediately to planning for the next training session. As Jurgen Klopp was fielding questions from reporters after Liverpool’s defeat at the Rajamangala Stadium, Ten Hag was already on the team bus assessing next steps with assistants Mitchell van der Gaag and Steve McClaren.

Ultimately though, Ten Hag agreed to give his opinions on games against Melbourne Victory and Villa in mixed zones — rather than sitting behind a table at a press conference — at the stadiums, and he gradually showed more of himself as the trip went on.

The manager addressed Cristiano Ronaldo’s absence in his first press conference in Bangkok, answering several questions but becoming curt, while Fernandes and Diogo Dalot also spoke on the subject.

Ronaldo’s Portugal team-mates chose their words carefully, underlining the sensitivity around an unexpected situation that could easily have overshadowed United’s trip, and neither was in a position to say the 37-year-old should stay. Only Fernandes said he had spoken to him.

Ultimately, though, United’s results meant Ronaldo became less of an issue, and indeed Anthony Martial got a much bigger platform than he would have done otherwise.

Indeed, Ten Hag began a series of interviews on July 18 at Melbourne’s AAMI Park with an answer of, “So far, so good” — and then became increasingly expansive. His English does not flow like that of Ralf Rangnick or Ole Gunnar Solskjaer yet he is able to convey his thoughts with real purpose and, importantly, the players understand exactly what he wants from them. Succinctness has proved a strength so far.

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Bruno Fernandes poses with a young fan in Perth (Photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

At the Ritz Carlton on the eve of the Villa game, Ten Hag felt comfortable to make a joke about opponents getting in the way of the best-made plans. Staff say his humour is often delivered so deadpan that some initially struggle to determine if he is being serious.

He predominantly cuts a stern figure at training, his overriding priority this past fortnight. He brought players back from holiday a week early to start instilling his proactive playing style at Carrington and had several days of double sessions abroad. The Australian weather helped. Both Melbourne and Perth were cool, meaning players did not overheat during the hard running sessions demanded by Ten Hag.

The temperatures in a southern-hemisphere winter were a consideration when United organised the tour. Details were signed off before Ten Hag was appointed but he is said to have been satisfied with what was in place.

Collette Roche, United’s chief operating officer, has been out for the duration to check everything is running smoothly at each venue and tweak any issues accordingly. No doubt another visit to Perth’s impressive Optus Stadium will have given food for thought on Old Trafford redevelopment, which is now Roche’s major brief. She had travelled to the countries weeks ago on a recce.

Thinking about next summer’s tour has already begun, with the United States under consideration. Ten Hag will be instrumental to the process and he even had an impact on this pre-season’s fixture list.

United face Atletico Madrid in Oslo on Saturday, then Rayo Vallecano at Old Trafford on Sunday because Ten Hag wanted two games the weekend before the start of the Premier League campaign so more players could get 90 minutes in their legs. He made the proposal when only the Atletico game was booked and chief executive Richard Arnold sorted the extra friendly. Low-cost tickets reflect a desire to get the ground full.

Ten Hag is expected to field his strongest team in Oslo, with those on the fringes facing Rayo.

His tour matches have very clearly seen a first-choice XI emerge with a couple of places under competition. Ten Hag has wanted to build momentum for a settled line-up, so some players barely featured and Alejandro Garnacho did not get off the bench at all. Two games in 24 hours this weekend allows Ten Hag to broaden his selections and doubles the chance to field new signings Lisandro Martinez and Christian Eriksen.

Ten Hag has explained he could not give minutes to young players for the sake of it as he wants to get his main players in a rhythm, with the aim of gaining a positive start to the campaign that would generate buy-in to his methods.

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United training in Bangkok on July 9 (Photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Even in training, his selections have followed the same pattern. At the WACA on Thursday, Ten Hag picked his starting XI for the Villa game in the main drill. To end the morning’s work he oversaw a seven-a-side game which emphasised passing out from the back and picking passes through tight spaces.

More than once he stood hands on hips, the pose we now know indicates an element of frustration. It has become obvious that Ten Hag will also voice in blunt terms any displeasure.

Zidane Iqbal, 19, has enjoyed an excellent tour, showing quality and maturity, but he was not spared Ten Hag’s sharp tongue at the WACA despite his age. “Keep the ball on the floor! Zidane! Hey! Fucking rubbish!”

Ten Hag does not just criticise the younger members of his squad, though. After De Gea kicked long against Crystal Palace, United’s manager could be heard shouting in the direction of the 31-year-old: “What the fuck are you doing?” Charlie Savage was not the target, as some speculated.

After the final game, Dalot said Ten Hag’s critiques were necessary. “It is discipline,” he said. “We need to be ready for that, to hear things that maybe we don’t want to hear. But I think everything is for the greater good of the team and that’s the most important thing.”

McClaren acts as a foil, bringing moments of levity. At the WACA, he engaged Darren Fletcher in a game of “closest to the pin” as the practice areas were being set up. Each man kicked two balls towards the zone that would eventually house the first rondo. Fletcher won.

McClaren offers knowledge too. It has been noticeable how much he has Ten Hag’s ear and he provides good communication across all the backroom teams. Despite his 27 years of coaching, he takes his lead from the manager and has given energy to overseeing the fringe group.

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McClaren gives instructions during a session at the Rajamangala Stadium in Bangkok (Photo: Ash Donelon/Manchester United via Getty Images)

Van der Gaag has exuded a cool air of authority. Described as “really sharp”, he has also been a manager to a high standard and speaks his own mind.

Notepad out, Van der Gaag led the pre-training briefing with McClaren and Fletcher at the WACA, then called for balls to be put on top of cones for the first rondo. Fletcher obliged but chucked one extra ball into the crowd to a mad scramble to claim it.

Eric Ramsay, inherited from Solskjaer’s staff, is a quieter presence offering diligent assistance.

McClaren knows how little touches can have a big impact on tours. After the session at the WACA, he went over to the crowd to sign autographs and pose for pictures to replace players who were needed for a children’s penalty shootout on the pitch. Fletcher had to run and collect Fernandes for it.

McClaren held the fort with the fans and encouraged Ten Hag to join him, which he did heartily. Fernandes, who has been brilliant at engaging with supporters in Bangkok, Melbourne, and Perth, returned with De Gea and Harry Maguire.

The 5,000 or so in the stands had been supportive of Maguire, chanting “Let’s go Harry” during the session, while his name was also sung during matches by those in some Melbourne pubs. But there were more jeering murmurs at the Optus Stadium for the game when he was announced. That has been a peculiar aspect of the tour, which United have tried to understand, landing on the theory that booing is a more generic Australian sledging of a high-profile player rather than committed United fans.

Supporters have camped out for hours at each team hotel for a chance to glimpse United players. Last Monday at Melbourne’s W Hotel, they sang “Happy Birthday” to Victor Lindelof and he stopped for pictures.

The previous Saturday, Lindelof had needed persuasion from McClaren to give up his time. McClaren joined in with fans shouting for Lindelof as he made his way to reception, then playfully squared up to the Sweden defender when he did come back to pick up a pen, as if to joke that he should have stopped in the first place.

Larry Taylor was one of the fans regularly in attendance. “Two and a half hours on Saturday, in the freezing cold, nine degrees,” he said. “Scott McTominay was an absolute gent. It’s a small touch but he makes eye contact with you, ‘Hi, how are you?’ My girlfriend is too short so he’s happy to take the phone and take the selfie for you. I know you shouldn’t look at that in terms of football, but when someone gives you their time, you do hope they do well.”

Later that day, at the launch for United’s away kit at Federation Square, McTominay could not hide his laughter when one fan in the thousand or so in the crowd shouted, “Fuck Liverpool”.

The compere, Australian TV presenter Beau Ryan, teased the five players on stage about conceding to Melbourne Victory, which left Jadon Sancho raising his eyebrows. On the 25-minute tram ride on the way over, Sancho had asked Ryan not to come to him for questions but the former rugby league player insisted. Afterwards, Ryan made a point of checking to make sure Sancho was happy at how things had gone.

That night the players had a free evening. Several went out into Melbourne’s nightlife. All were back by curfew. In Perth in 2019, one United staff member was seen very worse for wear in a casino at 3am. There was none of that this time. Generally, Ten Hag enforced a policy of very early bedtimes.

Maguire, Manchester United

Maguire has been booed in some quarters during the tour (Photo: Mike Owen/Getty Images)

Ten Hag is all about “we” and staff went for a meal in St Kilda, the district home to the city’s beaches. There are no phones at dinner for players.

Ten Hag has been kept abreast of transfer movements, with football director John Murtough in Europe with Arnold. The pair agreed a £72million ($86.4m) deal for Frenkie de Jong when in Barcelona, and broke the back of the £55million transfer of Lisandro Martinez on a trip to Amsterdam when the squad were in Bangkok.

Matt Judge was involved in contract negotiations for both but he has been gradually stepping back as he prepares to leave the club. Tom Keane, recruited this summer from law firm Brandsmiths, is providing additional support to Judge and the club’s legal department.

Ten Hag flew back with his squad immediately after the draw with Villa, a direct flight to Manchester with a stop for refuelling in Bangkok. Monday is a day off for players with training resuming on Tuesday.

Attention will turn to whether Ronaldo will show up. He posted a picture of himself working out while wearing United shorts at the same time as his team-mates were playing Villa.

That match ended with De Gea making an error to allow an equaliser. Eric Bailly kicked a plastic chair when walking off at the final whistle.

De Gea came through the mixed zone speaking to nobody and wearing a face of thunder.

It was a good tour, but Ten Hag knows there is much more work ahead.

(Top photo: Paul Kane/Getty Images)

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